Of Wannabes and Indians

When I first got my job here at UNCW teaching Native American history, a terrible thought briefly crossed my mind. I thought what great moral authority I would have with the students if I was an Indian. Since I’d been studying Southern Plains Indians, I figured if I could say that I was a Caddo or a Comanche, I’d have stature, prestige, and my own little following of students. Fortunately, it took about two seconds for that idea to pass. Clearer thinking made me see how wrong that would be on several levels. First off, it would have been a blatant lie. I was not an Indian on any level – not raised as one, didn’t have a card making me a citizen of any federal or state recognized Indian nation, I had never claimed it, didn’t have the genetic makeup of American Indians, and I didn’t follow any cultural aspects associated with Native Americans. There goes moral authority. Second, trying to pass myself off as something I wasn’t would have been academically dishonest. A simple phone call by anyone to the Comanche or Caddo tribal headquarters would have ratted out my lie. And that would have been a career killer. Third, it would have been an insult to Native American people. To falsely appropriate all the good and the bad that has happened and happens to them is immoral. To falsely advance myself on their backs was something my conscience would not allow. Thank you, Conscience, for working overtime on me. So while I have a great respect for American Indians and their culture, I’m not a “wannabe Indian,” just a white guy who studies Native American history.

But the pull of the “wannabe” is strong. Many people out there wannabe Indians. It’s probably the question I get asked the most : “I have Indian blood in me, so how do I become a member of a tribe?” Nine times out of ten it’s Cherokee blood they claim.
Some of these may be actual Indian people whose ancestors, for many possible reasons, got left off the rolls or moved away and so lost that tribal connection. Those I wish well and try and point them in the right direction. For others, it’s blatant economics. If they’re Indian, they think they can get a scholarship, a check, oil money, gambling money, or something free they think Indians get. For some, it’s something lacking in their own bland lives that by saying they’re Indians would make them special. Indians are cool, and if I’m Indian, then I’m cool. For others it is a spiritual thing. They see Indians as “special” people who have some mystical knowledge or skills that make them at one with nature. I don’t know about that, but Indians are people with all the good and the bad that goes into being human. Still, it’s easy to understand the pull of wanting to be Indian. After all, most of us associate admirable characteristics with Indians, such as bravery, independence, and spirituality. But in reality, this is not what makes Native American special. It is their history. They have a history unlike European Americans or African Americans. And there is power in history.

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2 comments on “Of Wannabes and Indians

  1. EelKat on said:

    Funny, whenever anyone asks my race I say “Scottish, but my grandmother was an Indian”. I mean technically I could say I was Native American, but I don’t. No idea why. Maybe it’s something like what you said, people say it to feel cool, but since it’s just who I am and I’m not trying to impress anyone, and I’ve got nothing to prove, so I don’t think to say I am one. Also, I never say “my people” but rather, I say “my grandmother’s people”. Is that weird?

    What you said about getting scholarships or grants or housing for being Native American? Yeah, I hear that all the time. I’m “legally” “1/3 Indian”, I could get “official” “tribal affiliation” with both MicMac and Kickapoo tribes. I’m told there’s some sort of “tribe card” or something that the government gives so you can prove you are the race you are. I’m also told, it only takes being “1/16 Indian” in order to get this “tribe card”.

    Well, I’ll be out with friends and one will say “So I hear you’re an Indian…” followed by one of the following comments: “…so I guess you are bumming your way through college, huh?”, “…what’s it like bumming off government housing?”, “…wish I had your luck, you must get a fortune in all that Casino cash.”


    When I ask, why they say those things, they always start yapping about how “Indians get off easy” because “the government pays everything for them”. I don’t know where these rumors come from, because the government never paid anything for me! I’m working my way through college, I paid cash for my motorhome, and honey, this is Maine – Casinos (and other forms of gambling) are illegal in these parts, heck you got to head a few hundred miles and over state lines if you want to even buy a PowerBall ticket! It’s so offensive when folks start crassing at Native Americans and falsely accusing them of living off the government, but it happens all the time.

    Worse are the folks who come to me and say “So, I think I might be at least 1/16 Indian, I want to see if I can get [scholarships/grants/housing/casino income/free medical/etc], you’re an Indian, how do you get that stuff?” … I’ll answer with: Well, I’m PART Indian, only about a third, though, and I don’t get any of that stuff you mentioned, I wouldn’t even know where to look for info on how to.” … Then they’ll start telling me, how the government assigns “Race Cards” so ethnic folks like me can prove what race we are so we can get discounts on stuff. I’m like, seriously? Race Cards for ethnic folks so they can prove what race they are? So you’re telling me, ALL ethnic races get these cards, Jews, Blacks, Asians too, or just us Native Americans? Can anyone say racial discrimination? How about government sanctioned ethnic bigotry? Seriously, singling out certain races as “different” or “ethnic” or needing to carry cards to “prove race” is nothing but proof that Native Americans are STILL not treated as equals, not even in the 21st century.

    My grandmother was taken away from her people at age 3, forced to speak and dress like “white” folks, yet not allowed to be taught to read and write (because “read skin savages” were “too stupid” to learn anything) and was put to work as “a red skin savage farm hand” in the Shaker Village, where she was beaten, raped, and sexually abused on a regular basis by the white men, until she ran away at age 18 and hitchhiked her way to Portland. The logic they used: her MicMac mother was a prostitute, she was an illegitimate savage, suspected of having a white father (though she was dark enough to have had a black father), but because her mother was a “working girl” it was assumed it was in her blood thus raping her on a daily basis was okay, because #1 she was predisposed to take after her mother and #2 she was a red skin savage incapable of feelings, emotions, or thinking so, it was okay. I’ll point out that we are not talking old times here either, my grandmother lived in the Shaker Village in the 1940s. If you go to The Shaker Village of Sabbathday Lake, in Maine, today it is a “living history museum” where the world’s last 2 Shakers live. Go there and look at the old photos on the wall, the smiling old guy with the big white mustache and the straw hat – he’s the rapist; and the little girl with dark braids, who never smiled and always wears black, and usually is seen on her hands and knees in front of a bucket scrubbing clothes on a washboard, listing in the photos only as “the wash girl” – that’s my grandmother, Eva Viola LittleJohn Dyer Atwater, aka my Grammy Eva.

    Very little is known about my family’s Native American records as town birth and death records read “Born this day 1 Indian”, no name, family info, nothing. The only info we know, is that there were 3 full blooded Indians, married into our close knit Scottish Traveller Gypsy clan. Most of the info known of our family’s bloodline comes from either oral history, family diaries, or the family Bible which is 400 years old.

    My mom was the daughter of the abused MicMac girl mentioned above. Her birth name is unknown, the name the Shakers gave her at age 3 was Eva Viola. The race of her father is unknown, though in the 1980s a white elderly man in his 90s showed up claiming to be her father. He died days later so we never found out.

    Grammy Eva had few memories of her mother and grandmother. What she remembered of her mother was that she was “a flapper of the gay 90s and roaring 20s, always wear red lipstick and a lot of pearls and really fancy dresses, lived dancing, and hung out with a lot of boyfriends”. She was a prostitute in Portland, Maine in the 1890s through 1920s, she died in 1924, cause of death unknown but listed as “probably whore’s sickness”, age “very young”. Of her grandmother, all she remembered was “she was a big fat Kickapoo squaw, when she sat down her bum filled over the sides of the chair, she couldn’t fit in a chair with arms she was so fat, she always wore her tribes traditional dress of skins and fur”. Some of Eva’s children (my aunts and uncles) remember being visited by their grandmother, and also described her as “hugely fat” and “wearing skins”. Many relatives refer to her as “Mumma’s Big Fat Kickapoo Granny”. All agreed that they never heard her speak English, and suspected she never learned how. Yet while her grandmother was “a full blooded Kickapoo”, my Grammy Eva was herself listed as a MicMac. And this is where, like other folks, it gets tricky trying to trace family history, when Native American blood lines come into question.

    There is an interesting fact about tribal relations, which not many people consider when trying to trace Native American blood, and that is that tribes are not “racial by blood”. Whites, Asians, and Blacks were often “adopted” into the tribe, and though not a Native American by blood, were considered Native American, by the tribe which adopted them, thus why white, yellow, gold, tan, red, brown, mocha, and black, with blue, green, or brown eyes and blond, red, brown, black, straight, or curly hair Native Americans have been seen and recorded in tribes as far back as the 1400s. It is for this reason that DNA testing is not considered a reliable way of finding out what tribe you’re ancestor to.

    This is why my own family has had trouble tracing our “Indian side”. I’ll explain. See, my “Red Skin Savage” grandmother had a MicMac mother, yet, her MicMac mother’s mother was a Kickapoo! In other words, my great-great grandmother was born into the Kickapoo tribe, and by blood was a Kickapoo, however, she married a MicMac man, making her a MicMac after marriage, regardless of her tribe by blood. And then it gets wonkier, because even though she was born as a Kickapoo, she claimed that her own grandmother was a Black slave woman, whom had escaped from Salem during the witch trials (fled to live with a local Kickapoo tribe to escape being executed by her Puritan slave owners). Likewise it is further known, that one of her grandmothers was married to a white man who was a second cousin of Sir Francis Drake the Dragon. What this means is that even though my Grammy Eva was a “full blooded red skin savage”, she had the blood of at least 2 Native tribes, and an African American, and a white European – the European blood being the oldest dating from about 1450, the African slave blood from 1640.

    In the 1970s, Grammy Eva went to Salem, Mass and spent several weeks in search of records to prove her grandmother’s story of being the granddaughter of a Black slave witch from Salem. I do not know what records she found, all I know is, she returned from Salem a changed woman, and took to carrying a black cat and a broom stick with her everywhere she went. She hung a sign over her bed which read “Here lays the official Salem Witch”. For the final 30 years of her life she referred to herself as “a real witch”, claiming that she was a witch by blood. Among other things she took up Voodoo and Hoodoo. She became known as “The Sea Witch of Old Orchard Beach” and “The Weather Witch of Biddeford”. Though she had already had 15 children of her own (11 lived to adulthood) she began talking of “adopting a beautiful black baby”, but was told that as a woman in her 60s she was too old to adopt, thus she began to amass a huge collection of black baby dolls instead. Her reasoning for these changes in her life, had been based on the discovery that her grandmother’s story was true, there was in fact a black slave woman in our family, and she had been “a pivotal part of the Salem Witch Trials” and “was one of the few accused of witchcraft, who survived”, and that she had been “a witch and proud of it” and had not been executed partly because she had admitted to being a witch and partly for turning over her master as a witch. I have no idea what records she found or what proof she had, only that whatever she found, confirmed in her mind, that I do know that the names Googins and Lewis show up many times in my family tree, that my Grammy’s family was from Portland (Freeport in the 1600s) and that these were the names my Grammy Eva had taken to Salem with her when she went looking for proof to back up her Kickapoo grandmother’s story of being part black.

    In tracing her history she came across records which said there was a Hawaiian bloodline, so she spent 3 years in Hawaii studying Huna, for a short while was Don Ho’s girlfriend, she returned, and spent the final 20 years of her life wearing nothing but bright colored mumu and carrying around an autographed picture of her and Don Ho loved in a passionate kiss and embrace. The photo of her “beloved Don Ho” was stolen 2 years before she died in 1994, and she was devastated at it’s loss. I’ve never found any records to verify the Hawaiian connection, so no idea what my Grammy Eva found.

    Her searching for her native ties, led her to Alaska in the 1980s, where she spent time living on a reservation and studying tall totem poles.

    In other words, there are three races confirmed (MicMac, Kickapoo, African American) and at least two more suspected (Hawaiian and Alaskan tribes, but uncertain which ones), this just from my Grammy Eva’s line, and she married a man who was Nova Scotian/Scottish/British. These are just my mom’s parents.

    This is just from my mom’s side however, then there is my dad’s side, again, mostly Scottish Traveller Gypsies. We find even more racial bloodlines, when looking at my dad’s parents which brings in: Scottish, Welsh, Pict, Viking, Mongolian, and at least one known Native American possibly Cherokee – all that just from his mother, with no clue to a single thing about his dad at all. My dad’s grandmother married a “Cherokee Chief” named Stackpole, himself of mixed tribal blood, though in the 1800s, no one really cared to keep track of tribal names so, no one knew which tribe is was actually from, thus the town record’s keeper slapped the title “Cherokee Chief” on the records, yet, it is a known fact that ACTUAL Cherokees never lived here in Maine at all and he was more likely MicMac, Mohawk, Iroquois, or Kickapoo (or any of the tribes which were here in Maine, at the time) . There is no evidence that great-great grandpa Chief Stackpole was a chief of any sort either. Other than what we know from his wife’s family Bible, we have no records of his family, nor any oral history, so who he was and what tribe he actually came from is a dead end mystery for us.

    This is why you find so many folks, as you pointed out, claiming Cherokee blood. Simple fact is, very few who find the word “Cherokee” written on town records, are ACTUALLY Cherokee. The reason for this is because in the 1800s, “Cherokee” was a slang term, that white folks just used for anyone with dark skin, including Native American Indians, Mexicans, light skinned African Americans, and tan skinned Caucasians. Basically there was a period of about 100 years where, if you had tan colored skin you were a Cherokee, no matter what your race was, simply because most folks only knew the name of one tribe, that being the Cherokee Nation, and therefore simply used the word Cherokee to describe anyone they thought could be an Indian, whither they were or not. And that is why today, you find so many folks jumping to raise their hand and say “I’m Cherokee!”, when chances are pretty high that they are not even remotely Cherokee at all, regardless of what the records they uncovered said.

    Likewise “Chief” was a slang title, that white folks used to call EVERY Indian the passed, same way they called every Black man they passed “Boy”. “Hey there Chief” was the standard 1800s greeting for any Indian you passed on the street, same as “Hey there Boy” was the standard 1800s greeting for any Black man you passed on the street. Unfortunately, this led to many town records, such as my great-great-grandfather’s which not only inaccurately labeled him as Cherokee, but farther inaccurately labeled him as Chief. Thus the town record keeper wrote “Cherokee” because it was easier than doing research to get the right tribe and “Chief” to be a smartass. But this is why so many folks come forward today 200 years later, with stories of “I looked up my family history and found out my great grandpappy was a Cherokee Chief!!!” If you was to do an actual head count of all the so called “Cherokee Chiefs” on record verses how many Indians were alive at the time, you’d find about 1 Cherokee Chief for every 3 Native Americans. Sad but true, and this is what makes tracking ACCURATE family history next to impossible, when you start trying to figure out what tribe you are from.

    So, there you have it, in spite of nearly a dozen different ethnicities known in our bloodline, I am still classified as “legally 1/3 Native American” simply because my grandmother’s mother was a full blooded MicMac and her mother was in turn a full blooded Kickapoo, and full blooded “Cherokee” was my dad’s great grandfather. How exactly this gets translated as 1/3, I don’t know.

    How do I “feel” racially? I remember my Grammy Helen spoke in Scottish dialect so thick, you could barely tell it was the English language. I remember wearing kilts until I was 8 years old. I remember Grammy Helen’s displaying her family tartan, the neon yellow with pinstripes red and black, commonly called “Lewis’s Loud McCloud” (this is the same Lewis family of the Salem Witch trial fame, ironically, both Grammy Helen and Grammy Eva traced their families there – while Grammy Eva traced her family to the Lewis’ black slave girl, Grammy Helen was a direct great-great-great granddaughter of the infamous Goody Lewis aka “The Freeport Girl from Maine” of the Salem Witch Trials). I remember Grammy Helen with all her tips and tricks of tossing salt to keep boogies out of your shadows, tieing red ribbons in trees to keep faeries from biting, tieing hose on poles to catch pixies, pouring molasses on door jams to keep out banshees, and sticking pins in dolls to curse or cure whomever needed cursing or curing. Grammy Helen was a Scottish Hoodoo Witch, no matter what her race or blood said, her dress, her speech, her beliefs, and her culture was deep old style Scottish hedgewitchery with a great big mess of Voodoo and Hoodoo piled on top. I grew up living with Grammy Helen, watching Liberace with her and helping her tie strings in trees. Grammy Eva, even though she was Native American, she had been taken away from her people at the young age of 3, and was in her 60s when she started looking to trace her roots. The things she picked up, where more “novelties” and “curiosities” rather than part of our family culture. While she loved the things she learned about her family, she always embraced it as though it was something “they did” as opposed to “us” or “we”. She viewed the stuff she learned as part of who her mother and grandmother were, but not who she was. She snagged bits and pieces she liked, but the rest of the culture was not picked up on. Likewise, she herself had married a Scottish man, who lived in America 80 years, but did not get citizenship until his 100th birthday, lived his whole life as a proud Nova Scotian (both his parents were immigrants from Scotland), and he flew the blue and white Scottish flag NEVER the American flag. He went by clan name (no one called him “David”, everyone called him “David Henry Atwater Patriarch of the Atwater Royal Highland Clan of Scotland”). I grew up with men wearing plaids and listening to bagpipes, sporting giant bushy beards, and refusing to speak “American”, which they viewed as a pour corruption of “The King’s English” (which they also said about British and Irish English as well. Only Scottish and Welsh spoke English “correctly” anymore, they would say).

    And so, in spite of Native American being 1/3 of my blood type, and me looking by far more Native American than Caucasian, I grew up deep in Scottish culture, Scottish tradition, Scottish witchcraft, Scottish folklore, Scottish clanism, and Scottish paraphilia, thus it is the Scottish Culture and Scotch Hoodoo Magic that I identify with, not the Native American culture, or Native American Spirituality which I actually know very little about and thus why when folks ask my race, I say “I’m Scottish, but my grandmother was a MicMac-Kickapoo”. I mean, sure, I’ve got the blood for it, so I could be perfectly justified in saying I was Native American, but I was raised far removed from that culture, and inspite of my Native American blood, I feel very little actual connection to Native American culture, while I feel a very strong pull to the Scottish culture. On that same note, in spite of being born and raised in America, I don’t feel American at all, like I said, I grew up in a very Scottish based cultural community, we had little contact with “those Americans” and thus even though I am largely Native American by blood, culturally I was not raised to consider myself to be American, Native or otherwise!

    If I wanted to get really technical about it, I suppose the next time someone asks my race, I could say: Scottish, Kickapoo, MicMac, African American, British, Viking, Mongolian, Nova Scotian, Cherokee, with a touch of Hawaiian, and a dash of some sort of Alaskan, just to be accurate and cover all the bases. LOL! :P

  2. Debra Newton-Carter on said:

    In my husband’s family, there has been talk of Indian blood. I connected with Coastal Carolina Indian Center a number of years back and found the connections between the Dove family and possibly Carter and George families; however, I was unable to find any connections via land deeds, as suggested. I am still wondering, other than DNA, how this can be accomplished. It is believed that the Doves were African-American mixed with Mattamuskeet…but as you say, they always say “Cherokee.” I believe it is just because to these people, anyone claiming Native status was considered generically. But I would love to discover the true connection one day!

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